Shoegazers, 1990-94

The origin of the term “shoegazer” in the early 1990s by the British music press was a pejorative meant to slag the middle-class kids who comprised most of the bands, who, when playing live at clubs, seemed more obsessed staring at the floor while managing banks of guitar effects pedals than looking out at the audience. Of course the audience was comprised of middle-class kids high on hashish and X who dug the effects-laden, dreamy, ethereal noise by the bands on the stage. The music was a loud, swirling mess of new hi-tech sound effects mixed with a definite lo-fi, garage band ethos, with the lead singers almost whispering the lyrics over this cacophony of rich, fuzzy-buzzing sounds. The more potent designer drugs available at the time certainly added to the overall psychedelic ambiance at clubs, and for a few years the posh, slightly oblivious shoegazers offered an alternative to the “Madchester” sound embraced by the hooligans and working class club denizens. In the middle 90s the Shoegazers were made obsolete by the Brit Pop bands Oasis, Blur, Suede, and the like.

In America in the early 90s, Grunge, a more male-dominated and aggressive hybrid of Punk and Hard Rock, was the predominant new style that captured popular fancy after Nirvana’s epic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” exploded in late 1991, but in the UK the Shoegazers, eminently more feminine in their approach and yet fueled by loud, feedback-laden guitars and introspective, dream-like lyricism, definitely provided a delicious alternative to the Seattle boys who powered Grunge’s ascent. I honestly enjoyed the music of both scenes but for different reasons and for different personal circumstances; why limit one’s self to a single choice?

Grunge had very few, if any, female leaders, while the Shoegazers, even if led by guys, took great lengths to explore the female psyche in both content and feeling, which gave the movement a much more sensual and erotic feeling than the hyper-testosterone noise of Grunge with its hirsute rocker boys and all their masculine angst. The Shoegazer bands Lush and My Bloody Valentine were probably the best of the lot at making beautiful noise powered by this ethereal feminine power. Moreover, gay power was greatly represented by superb bands like Kitchens of Distinction, which added to the diverse and beautiful flavor of the movement, proving that Rock wasn’t just about hairy dudes flexing their man parts and hyper machismo on stage. Shogazers offered a softer and more sensitive feeling to its ambiance, and yet still rocked loudly and proudly in all that beautiful noise.

I’d like to present what I think are the best examples of the sound in no particular order, but some songs simply stand out more than others and exemplify why Shoegazer music was so fucking fabulous in the strange and wonderful early 1990s that was my life in transition from living in Europe through the middle-to-late 80s and now back home in the new decade, where I felt like a weird alien in my homeland and had great difficulty adjusting to the American way of life after years of being blithely oblivious to its culture. Good “Alternative” music and the book Generation X by Douglas Copeland helped me navigate these strange new waters.

I’d always kept an open mind and embraced music from a wide and diverse blend of genres, especially from what was coming out of London, Manchester, and greater Europe, while at the same time, thanks to SPIN Magazine, being jacked into the American Indie and Alternative scene with as much gusto. I never felt beholden to one band or genre or sound, and in fact found great pleasure in mixing and matching my listening playlists with as many weirdly diverse sounds as I possibly could. I first heard many of the great Shoegazer songs while watching MTV’s epic “Alternative” show 120 Minutes, which thankfully embraced the same weird music ethos as I did in 1990 when I returned to the the USA. 120 Minutes introduced early Grunge and Shoegazer bands with equal aplomb and respect in the early 90s, offering the fans to decide what to love and what to hate, just two more styles in a large and diverse mix of yummy alternatives to the deluge of boring and vapid mainstream crap pumped out on the airwaves on a daily basis.

So, where to begin? If I were to introduce one song by one band that captures the Shoegazer ethos perfectly, My Bloody Valentine is, hands-down, the band, and their song Come In Alone is the song. It’s a breathlessly sensual, joyously weird, brilliantly loud, gloriously messy mélange of everything that made Shoegazer music so goddamn great. If you’ve ever been high on X you know that powerful feeling to touch another human being while reality melts into a swirling, churning, bubbling mess of sights, sounds, and feelings too weird and beautiful to imagine sober. You find yourself reaching out to feel the flesh of someone, anyone, in your general vicinity, and that touch becomes an electrified and nearly orgasmic explosion of synapses firing in hyper-drive, and it’s not quite sexual and yet not asexual either, but somewhere wildly, weirdly in-between, as if you’re doing some kind of hyper-naughty Vulcan mind meld powered by your loins as much as your brain. You realize, high on this crazy nutty drug, how much another human being means to you at that moment, how fucking beautiful it is to touch them and share that feeling. This is X at its best. And this song captures that amazing feeling.

My Bloody Valentine – Come In Alone (1991)

In a very close second is this gorgeous mess of sound and feeling by the girl-dominated band Lush, proving that the exertion of lady parts and feelings can power a Rock song to utter nirvana with as much brilliance as any boy band. These ladies made some superbly sensual music in their heyday, music with which to blaze up and touch-kiss-feel-fuck your significant other in a yummy blissful way. There are two versions of this song and each is as vibrant and necessary as the other depending on your mood at the moment you spin them. I love this effects-laden explosion of yummy girl power best. This was a great band proving that feminine feeling in loud doses can power the psyche with amazing results. Influenced and produced by Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie, this version is Cocteau-esqe and yet singer Miki Berenyi owns it with a breathlessly majestic vibe all her own. Dirty me, I always imagine a beautiful woman furiously masturbating to this as it plays. Sue me.

Lush – Thoughtforms (1990)

Kitchens of Distinction provided more of an introspective vibe to the Shoegazer sound with a distinctly gay flavor, and one needn’t be gay to enjoy this perspective if one has an open mind and wishes to understand all the vibrant and vital stories to be told by our fellow human beings. Why limit yourself to the narrow confines of your own experience and viewpoint? How weird to live in such intellectual myopia. It helped that the band could Rock and sounded fabulous. The guitars are powerful and shimmering with glorious majesty, and while R.E.M. and Echo & The Bunnymen obviously influenced the lads, they take their sound to new heights beyond that cool baseline. This was a real sleeper in the early 90s that 120 Minutes introduced to an American audience willing to embrace something bold and different. A Shoegazer 101 lecture must include this epic tune as one of the cornerstones of the genre. However, it stands on its own as a great Pop song regardless of the genre.

Kitchens of Distinction – Drive That Fast (1991)

You want a song that just rocks? Try this one by Swervedriver, in my humble opinion one of the great Rock songs of the 1990s, a driving, powerful, beautiful cacophony of noise and feeling, all guitars and nothing but guitars in a sonic wonderland. Again the band tones down the testosterone but not the masculine energy, and the net effect is a glistening, glorious, nearly perfect Rock & Roll song. It’s probably the least shoegazer-like Shoegazer song of this lot, but certainly well within the confines of the movement in spirit if not in reality.

Swervedriver – Duel (1993)

Slowdive captured the capital-E ethereal feeling of the Shoegazer movement, making loud guitar rock that was extremely girl-friendly and sensual without losing its power, and adding a wonderfully psychedelic atmosphere that took the listener to an otherworldly existence far away from the shitty hustle and bustle of reality. You felt the pot haze surround you when this was blasting from your stereo, and hopefully it was real as this was perfect for those soft, somber, candlelit, sensual moments lying on the floor cuddling with the one you loved after a good joint or two or three. Thirty years later this still sounds lush and vital, as if the years that have gone by haven’t really aged you or the feelings you had in 1993. You still need this sound to surround you in more contemplative moments.

Slowdive – Alison (1993)

Catherine Wheel was an interesting band, masculine enough in sound and style to be confused with the Grunge boys in Seattle in 1992, and yet never quite sounding as cock-thrustingly dude-like as Pearl Jam or Soundgarden or that ilk. Sure, the Seattle boys had a sensitive side, but it was too narcissistic to be anything but whiny, me-first male blathering, while Catherine Wheel displayed an astonishingly softer version of male angst, and while not losing the penis altogether within the mix, their style favored a much more sensual sound within the loud guitars and fuzzbox effects than the Seattle boys were ever capable of capturing on record or in live performances. Just compare this stellar track to any Pearl Jam or Nirvana or Soundgarden track and you’re immediately aware of the difference. It had guitar power and a driving 4/4 beat, but there’s a hypnotic sensuality to the sound that gives it more flavor and feeling than your typical Grunge song.

Catherine Wheel – Crank (1993)

Lush was so good, so perfectly sexy and profoundly lovely, that it would be hard not to include a few songs from the band’s limited but generally great catalogue. Miki and Emma’s breathless vocal styling amid the shimmering, echo-laden guitars, proved without a doubt that guitar Rock has plenty of room for female sensuality and all its unbridled glory without losing the powerful “jamming” of a male-dominated song. In fact, the gender gap in the sound is what gives it so much power and feeling. They’re not merely fucking you, they’re in charge, so shut the fuck up and let them ride you. I, for one, never minded that kind of relationship with a strong, beautiful, brilliant woman. If you really care for a woman, let her have the floor to express her feelings, moreover let her art shine with the power of an exploding star in the heavens. Lush did that for me as much as any girl-dominated Rock band before or since. They weren’t imitating the boys, they were showing us how it should be done properly. Fuck yeah it’s sexy, but it’s also mind-expanding and fun. In the early 90s few bands earned my love as much as this one.

Lush – Sweetness and Light (1990)

To truly understand My Bloody Valentine is to know how being afflicted with OCD affects the strive for perfection differently than in normal people. With OCD the excessive need to make each moment better than the next is maddening, but within that madness lies the genius that has always made the human race strive to be better, stronger, smarter, and fitter. In musical terms, with technology finally catching up to ambition, one could translate serious musical OCD tendencies into long, arduous, even insane recording sessions where layer upon layer of sound could be included on the seemingly endless space within a 24-track digital studio console. Back in the time of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, a lot of the recording studio work on such an amazing recording was obsessed with the difficulty in manipulating the tape or finding clever ways to harness analog sounds out of primitive electronic equipment, while by the time Kevin Shields was recording Loveless all of hard recording process challenges were simplified by digital technology, so every ounce of creativity could be thrown at laying every sound and whim possible into this vast space on the digital palette. Shields went way overboard during the recording of the album Loveless and we’re all lucky to bear witness to his OCD insanity, because no matter how loud you play the record it never overwhelms your hearing, but the layer-upon-layer of sound and effects across the entire stereo channel will drive you mad with its sensual allure and sonic perfection. There are so many overdubs of guitars and voices and sound modulations across every track that the net effect is like a nuclear explosion but without the concussion. It’s profoundly beautiful and yet also disorienting in large doses, especially while wearing good headphones, but few records have moved me with as much feeling and emotion as Loveless, easily one of my top-5 favorite Rock albums in my life. It is such a celebration of life and sound and music obsessiveness gone mad that I often feel a kindred soul has touched me in places so few of my fellow humans even know, let alone understand.

My Bloody Valentine – Sometimes (1991)

While most Shoegazer bands used traditional instruments in the vein of Classic Rock, albeit processed through a vast array of digital effects, Curve embraced drum machines and synths but didn’t lose their guitars, which, while heavily modulated with the same vast array of digital effects as all the Shoegazers used, still led the attack. It gave the band’s sound a Gothic-Industrial flavor amid the psychedelia and ethereal vocal stylings of Toni Halliday. Curve’s sound was creepy and lovely at the same time, a frenetic tornado of swirling sonic echoes backed by droning pulses and electronic drum beats, making it feel like a crazy acid thrip filtered through a jet engine. Halliday and music partner Dean Garcia eschewed tradition song structures and just threw the music in the air and let it catch the wind’s direction, which makes for a wild and sensually powerful feeling on a good stereo system or while wearing headphones. Better yet, while stoned it’s even more fun. Like Swervedriver, Curve is barely Shoegazer in the traditional sense, but gladly wrapped in the movement if by spirit alone. If feminine sensuality is the driving force of the sound, and this is record dripping with it, it can’t be that different than Lush or My Bloody Valentine.

Curve – Doppelgänger (1992)

Of all the Shoegazers, Chapterhouse embraced the Madchester beat the most and gave its songs a dance groove that was as alluring as its vastly layered, gorgeous sound. The breathless vocal delivery was buried within the mix a bit much, but that added a sensual mystery to the overall feeling, which of course sounds fabulous with headphones. Like all Shoegazer bands, the lack of hyper-macho posing probably led to it not selling well in America while at the same time, 1991, Grunge went stratospheric with its screaming hairy boys appealing more to the traditional Rock fans who longed for the days of Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. Grunge wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but very few girls were included in the genre and it had little or no feminine sensuality amid the howling hairy boys up front. Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, and Curt Cobain were all valid Rock stars by any accord, but we’d heard their type for the last 30 years, while the Shoegazers gave us a more diverse expression of gender and sexuality, and refreshingly so. Like, it’s perfectly great if the music is a little less dude-like and more girlie and faggie, and as a straight male I like a little flavor to my mix than just straight testosterone blasting through my ears like acid through a firehose. Give my ears some soft and tender tickling too. But still the loud guitars, please. Always the loud guitars.

Chapterhouse – Pearl (1991)

Ride was a traditional Rock band who embraced the Shoegazer ethos but turned down the effects and relied more on traditional pop styling amid the guitar noise. They were smart and sensitive lads who experienced some buzz in America but not enough to become wildly famous like the Seattle Grunge boys, though it could be reasonably argued their music was as good or better than most of the Grunge fare. Such is life. Part of the problem was Ride championed the music over their image, while Grunge celebrated the long-haired Rock god image front and center along with the music. Eddie Vedder was pretty and long-haired and sensitive enough to make the girls scream, while Ride just wanted you to LISTEN and not look. Alas, Rock & Roll is as much about image as it is the music, no matter how great the music may be. I recall that Christopher Cross’s music was wildly popular on the radio at first in 1980 or so, but then after a couple of awkward appearances on national TV where people saw him as chubby and sadly dull looking, his appeal lessened even with so many good pop songs to his credit. Meanwhile, a few years later, MTV made superstars out of far too many pretty but artistically shitty acts while acts like Cross were too ugly for MTV stardom. Ride made great music but looked boring and uninterested in drawing fans into their looks and image, which, artistically, was cool, but also career suicide. They weren’t bad looking blokes, but they didn’t project glamour like Eddie Vedder or the like; luckily Pear Jam the band had the chops to match the pretty looks of the lead singer. Such is Rock & Roll. No one ever said the best music always becomes the most popular.

Ride – Vapor Trail (1990)

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